“When I was a kid, I always fancied being a bartender when I grew up because they always got the best stories,” says Toronto-based freelancer Doug O’Neill. “Somewhere along the line I figured I could not only hear great stories but scribble them down, as well, and get paid for it.” Doug’s a morning person so bartending didn’t work out. Alternatively, he’s has a successful career in travel writing and editing that spans 25+ years. He joins us this week to share his story.
You’ve been in this travel writing world for a while, how did it all start for you?
I worked in magazine publishing for about 20 years before I turned to travel writing. I had always traveled whenever I could. It made sense to combine the two. An editor friend knew of my passion for hiking and asked if I’d go to southern England for him as he couldn’t find a writer who hiked. I was Executive Editor at Canadian Living magazine and a new editor asked if I would launch a travel blog and get more travel content into the magazine. Heaven! I’m interested in the travel industry as much as I’m keen on traveling. The impact of travel on people and the impact of travelers on local communities fascinates me.
What do you see as the biggest changes in the world of travel writing from the time you started until now? And what do you anticipate the next change to be?
Two things: Firstly, people are traveling more now than ever before. Travel is no longer the domain of newly-graduated students with backpacks and retirees with deep-pockets. People are traveling at every stage of their lives and to increasingly exotic and far-flung locations where they want to connect with locals. This has increased the demand for experiential travel writing beyond the where to stay and sleep and eat. Secondly, the explosion of new media and social media has made competition stiffer (harder than ever to earn decent or fair payment for travel content) but it also means that ‘travel media, travel content’ has changed. It’s not just words and/or images. I see that as the next evolution that freelancers must grapple with. I used to just write, and then I started to include photos. Then I added a layer of social media. And, increasingly, short iPhone videos.
What does this mean for travel writers? Video—really good video—will be expected from all of us. And we shouldn’t kvetch or whine about it. Change is inevitable. The challenge will be to meet the demands of professional travel content and get compensated for it. Aye, there’s the rub!
If someone close to you wanted to break into travel writing in today’s environment, what advice would you offer?
Two things: (1) learn to produce excellent video, whether you self-identify as a wordsmith or not. This is crucial if you wish to continue freelancing in the travel sphere. (2) Have multiple streams of revenue. That’s becoming hugely important. Most full-time freelancers I know—who are living somewhat comfortably—either have savings from a previous career, a financially stable partner or travel non-stop and have no living expenses (i.e., no mortgage, no permanent home or home maintenance to pay.) Be a part-time teacher. If you love numbers and figures, then learn basic book-keeping. Consider the occasional 4-month job doing something you’re good at in order to finance longer periods of freelance travel writing.
You recently walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Do you feel that experience has enhanced your writing in any way? Why or why not?
I walked the Camino as a transition from my ten-year stint as Executive Editor of Canadian Living into the freelance world. My goal in walking the 800-kilometer Camino was to NOT plan anything in advance. And that was tough because I’m a planner by nature. I woke up each day with nothing but a backpack and walking stick with no idea where I’d sleep that night. I simply said “yes” to whatever life offered me during those weeks of endless walking. And I learned to live with less.
The impact that Camino experience had on my writing? I experiment more. I found myself becoming more open to newer subjects – especially ones I had stayed clear of in the past.
Last month, I finished co-authoring a nature-guide book. It was a 12-month project. I was very uncertain of the commitment when it first came my way. There was no certainty I’d be able to write a book and still work at my freelance career. But life is about risks. And sometimes you just launch forward and trust the universe. That’s what I did on the Camino. I never allowed myself to book lodgings in advance. I’d arrive somewhere at the end of the day and hope there’d be a bed somewhere. Had I planned everything I’d never have met the people who ultimately changed my life view. Not planning ahead was pure Hell for a Virgo like me!
I think all of us should do a “Camino of sorts” in our working lives, whether it’s an 800-kilometer trek, a volunteer job in a cafe, or a modest sabbatical in a studio apartment in the middle of a Prairie. I seriously believe freelance writers, especially, need to reboot and take stock occasionally and be immersed in a challenge. Whatever your “Camino” looks like, just do it.
Where do you see your writing career in 5 years?
I see myself writing more books. Now that I’ve got one co-authored book under my belt (it will hit the shelves in April 2019), I know it’s possible. The rewards in the freelance world aren’t always monetary. So it’s important to occasionally embrace a writing project that’s just for you. Otherwise, why the sam hell are we doing all this?
I also see myself tackling other kinds of writing projects, perhaps more content marketing because that’s where I see the opportunities.
If you had the time and resources to beef up specific skills to help you get to the next stage of your writing career, what would they be?
My dream list:
- Learn Cantonese or Mandarin because therein lies the great growth in tourism and travel.
- Become excellent at video.
- Learn to negotiate better writing contracts. Too many of us just sign the contract that’s sent to us. Don’t do that.
Doug currently focuses on traditional editorial content (print and digital) as well as marketing and communications writing. He previously held staff positions on various Canadian publications including serving as Executive Editor of Canadian Living before charging into the freelance world full-time in 2016. Connect with Doug on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.